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Do not treat Israel like apartheid South Africa

Ian Buruma
Tuesday July 23, 2002
The Guardian

Whatever it was that prompted Steven and Hilary Rose to call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, it is unlikely to have been anti-semitism. That they happen to be Jewish is, of course, no guarantee. Karl Marx, descendent of a long line of rabbis, opined that, "Money is the zealous God of Israel, before whom no other god may be." This was, however, not the tone of the Roses' defence of their campaign, published in the Guardian last Monday.

The significant thing about their article was the comparison of Israel and South Africa. They cited the success of "civil society" expressing its "moral outrage" by boycotting South Africa. And they mentioned the number of people they knew who felt that "cooperating with Israeli institutions was like collaborating with the apartheid regime".

They are quite correct: a lot of people do think that. Israel, in many respects, has become the South Africa of today. It is the litmus test of one's progressive credentials. If you are on the left, you can be friendly with Jews, you can be a Jew, but you cannot be on the side of Israel.

The test is political, but more than that, it is moral. The Roses got it precisely right. "Moral outrage" is the proper phrase for the attitude that is being struck. And rarely can a cause have been so timely. After all, when a Labour foreign secretary praises China for its wonderful capitalism (with no trade unions to hinder the plutocrats), economics are clearly no longer a test of where one stands on matters right and left.

These litmus tests come up about once in every generation, and sometimes more than once. Spain in 1937. The Vietnam war. Chile. South Africa. And now Israel. Bosnia was trickier. The victims were innocent Muslims, and the aggressors were racist thugs, but supporters of the Bosnian Muslims called for US intervention, and that caused a split in the progressive ranks.

In the case of Israel, as with South Africa, moral outrage comes more easily. A developing world people is being oppressed by the rightwing government of a modern capitalist country, backed by the US. Territory is being occupied by armed forces, which brings back memories of colonialism. The ideal of a Jewish state smacks of racism. Moreover, the Israeli prime minister looks, and often behaves, like a thug out of central casting. The suffering and humiliation of Palestinians is plain to see.

And yet the comparison with South Africa is intellectually lazy, morally questionable, and possibly even mendacious. Boycotters of South Africa believed that the apartheid system made the government illegitimate. This, after all, was a state which deprived the majority of its people of civil rights because of the colour of their skin. Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of boycotting as a tactic, isolating South Africa was a political act in favour of democracy. The abolition of apartheid restored the legitimacy of the South African state.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but the campaigners for a boycott against Israel are not challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli government. They are against Israeli policies in occupied areas, which is a different thing. Inside the state of Israel, there is no apartheid. In proportion to its population, Israel has the largest minority within its borders of any country in the Middle East. The official figure for Copts in Egypt is 10%. Non-Jews, mostly Arab Muslims, make up 20% of the Israeli population, and they enjoy full citizen's rights. Israel is one of the few Middle Eastern states where Muslim women are allowed to vote.

Certainly, Israeli Arabs are not always treated well, though not nearly as badly as the Egyptian Copts, or the few Jews left in the Muslim world. Israeli Arab towns are neglected and, particularly since the latest intifada, public suspicion has led to social discrimination. To make things worse, some politicians make no secret of their desire to remove the Arabs from Israel altogether. But apartheid, however satisfying it is for the morally outraged to think so, it is not.

There are perfectly good reasons to disagree with Israel's policies in the occupied areas. Killing Palestinians to protect Jewish settlements which should never have been there in the first place is difficult to condone. But this is a terrible reason for boycotting the very people who are likely to share one's disgust. And if military policies in disputed areas were a legitimate reason for such boycotts, there would be no more academic links with many places in the world - and I don't mean just dictatorships.

A more apt comparison with Israeli policies would be India's war in Kashmir. There, too, the victims are mostly Muslims. There is a long history of oppression, bad faith and stupid decisions. And the scale of the violence is much worse. Far more Muslims have been killed or tortured by the Indian army than by the Israeli defence forces. Dozens of Kashmiri victims - the number of people killed in Jenin - would not even reach the news. And if you think Kashmir is brutal, what about Chechnya?

But India and Russia are not litmus tests. Moral outrage against their governments is not a badge of being progressive. No one is proposing a boycott of universities in Delhi or St Petersburg. I can think of one or two reasons for these double standards, but whatever they are, I believe that they tell us more about the boycotters than about the subjects of their rage.

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